High capacity magazines

Posted by Sappho on January 11th, 2013 filed in News and Commentary


From the Huffington Post, on longtime gun control advocate Senator Frank Lautenberg’s advocacy of legislation to control high capacity magazines:

The legislation would simply reintroduce the prohibition of high-capacity magazines that existed under the federal Assault Weapons Ban from 1994 to 2004. In Tucson, the shooter Jared Loughner was able to fire 30-plus shots without having to reload. During the shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., the alleged shooter reportedly had a 100-round magazine drum. At Sandy Hook Elementary School, the alleged shooter also had high-capacity magazines.

Here Sam Wang, of the Princeton Election Consortium, produces a chart to argue that the number of people killed per year in mass shootings while the assault weapons ban was in effect was less than half what it has been in the years since the assault weapons ban expired.

Now, here’s the thing that bugs me about the pushback that I’m hearing, against proposals to limit the sale of high capacity magazines. I’ve seen people arguing two things at once:

  1. Bans on high capacity magazines would be no impediment at all to mass killers, because it is trivial for them to carry multiple guns, switch magazines, etc.
  2. Bans on high capacity magazines would be a serious impediment to people looking to use guns in self-defense, because they really need the capacity to defend themselves against whole gangs of armed people who may attack them, so that they need to be able to shoot large numbers of bullets without stopping to switch magazines.

It seems to me highly unlikely that both these things can simultaneously be true. Either pausing to reload does allow a moment at which someone can tackle you, and stop you from shooting more people (thus at least reducing the number of people you’re able to kill in your particular mass shooting), or it doesn’t. If it does, then why would only law abiding people acting in self-defense be affected? Besides, how often are law abiding people really using guns to defend themselves against whole gangs of armed intruders?

It has been argued that the Sandy Hook incident in particular wouldn’t have been affected by a limit on high capacity magazines, because a classroom of six-year-olds can’t charge a man who has paused to reload. This might be true. Or it might not. After all, Sandy Hook didn’t only include six-year-olds who couldn’t effectively charge Adam Lanza; it also included a principal who did charge him; maybe, if he’d had smaller magazines, she or one of the other staff would have been able to cease the right moment. Or not. I’m not sure how, short of living in the alternate timeline where magazine size was restricted, I can know. I do know that the Tucson assassin was, in fact, tackled when he paused to reload, which suggests to me that at least in that case, he’d have killed fewer people if a smaller magazine size had forced him to pause to reload sooner.

Sam Wang (in a different post from the other that I linked) raises the possibility that supporters and opponents of gun regulation are assessing the odds differently because they, on average, live in different gun cultures.

The three states with the highest rate of gun ownership (MT, AK, WY) have a gun death rate of 17.8 per 100,000, over 4 times that of the three lowest-ownership states (HI, NJ, MA; 4.0 gun deaths per 100,000). The relationship is a near-perfect linear proportion: on average, as G goes up, D goes up (r=+0.63). These data suggest that whether or not our society finds it desirable, gun safety/control is a plausible means of reducing gun deaths.

A striking aspect of this graph is that the rate of gun ownership varies by almost tenfold across states. Residents of different states are in very different environments, gunwise. When opponents of regulation, who are usually in gun-rich states, say that a sufficiently-determined evildoer could get a gun even under a heavy regulatory regime, that could be correct. Think of this measure as an index of “gun culture.”

I’ve lived only in two of the states with the strongest gun regulations, New York and California. One thing that I’ve realized, as I’ve read the debate over gun control in the wake of Sandy Hook, is that a lot of the regulations that I consider to intuitively make sense, as far as guns are concerned, are exactly the laws that already exist, in New York or California or both (California, for instance, does already have an assault weapons ban). Similarly, though California has a Castle Doctrine law that says you have no duty to retreat if someone forcibly intrudes into your home, it doesn’t have a Stand Your Ground law that says you have no duty to retreat anywhere; Stand Your Ground laws (which don’t apply in either of the states in which I’ve actually lived) strike me as perverse. So Sam Wang may be right that I’ve never actually lived in the same gun culture as the one many of the strongest opponents of gun control live in.


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